Oh, the things you do to my heart, Michigan football.
I had all but resigned to the probability that we were going to lose to Northwestern until that happily bizarre ending with the miracle tip to Roy Roundtree and the where-the-hell-have-you-guys-been defensive stop in the first overtime.
I may catch some flack for saying this, but it's possible that Michigan's defense snoozed their way through three quarters of the Northwestern game because they were favored by 11 points in Vegas and because it was their first home game back after two weeks, and there's that friendly home crowd, y'all. I just about threw my chair against the wall when Kenny Demens came in and stopped the Wildcats cold on fourth down. "That's the defense we've seen all year," I drunkenly said to my friends. "Where the hell were these guys?"
So, that was fun and not fun at the same time. Here's some good news: Michigan currently has a streak of 13-0 at home under Brady Hoke, but the Northwestern game may have hopefully made them edgy enough to not take Iowa lightly on senior day.
Okay, let's ask ourselves a serious question: Is Michigan in control of their own destiny? Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News sure thinks so, and he feels optimistic about Michigan's chances to get to the Big Ten championship game:
Nebraska maintained control of the Legends Division by rallying to beat Penn State 32-23, and is on track for the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin. Michigan (7-3) edged ahead of Northwestern (7-3) and closes with Iowa at home and Ohio State on the road. It needs two victories to stay in it, not an easy task. But after this crazy sleight of hand, and with Gardner's stirring arrival, who knows.
Indeed, except not really.
Michigan is currently tied with Nebraska in first place of the Legends Division, but because Nebraska has the head-to-head tie-breaker, that basically means that Michigan is in second place. Even if Michigan wins out, Nebraska would have to lose at least one more game for Michigan to take the go-ahead trip to Indianapolis. Michigan's remaining schedule? Iowa and an undefeated Ohio State. Nebraska's? Minnesota and Iowa.
So, yeah, it's not looking too good for Michigan.
If you'd ask Brady Hoke what he thinks about Michigan's chances for getting to the Big Ten championship game, he'll give you the same answer every time: "We expect to win the Big Ten championship."
That's admirable, Brady, but it's kind of hard to secure a win for something when you lose to the one team that holds the head-to-head tie-breaker and they're currently on track to win their next two games.
It makes me sick to say this, but it almost would have been better for Michigan to have their one conference loss to Michigan State instead of Nebraska, because at least then Michigan would have the tie-breaker in their pocket. Now, all we can really do is hope that Nebraska slips up in the next two weeks, which is probably not going to happen.
With the season quickly coming to a close, it's time to face facts. And while the very Michigan-friendly folks at Off Tackle Empire may think every Michigan fan completely bought into the pre-season hype that Michigan was easily a dark horse contender for the national championship or that Michigan fans are delusional enough to think that we still have a sure shot at a Big Ten championship, the fact is most rational Michigan fans were uneasy about the No. 8-ranking and are quite skeptical about our chances at the Rose Bowl.
There may be still some fans out there who hold out hope, and good for them. However, it may be time to consider the possibility that Michigan will play in a non-BCS bowl and just hope that it's against a non-Alabama (or LSU) opponent.
That doesn't mean that Michigan's season is shot to hell. It just means that Michigan is not totally in control of their own destiny (thanks for nothing, MSU and PSU) and will have to shift their expectations somewhat.
Before we go ahead and start stockpiling whiskey for the long weeks ahead, let's first acknowledge something: there are two games left in the season, and a lot can happen in two games. In 2011, Michigan's dual wins over Nebraska and Ohio State pushed them into the BCS-bowl discussion, something that was completely unexpected considering where they had been a year prior.
Let's also acknowledge this: Michigan getting to the Big Ten championship is a hell of a long shot. They'll have to win out, including a upset victory over undefeated Ohio State, and Nebraska will have to experience a stunning upset at the hands of either the Minnesota Gophers(!) or the beleaguered Ferentzes, a.k.a. the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Yes. Sure. There's a chance.
As much as the giddy optimist of a Michigan fan in me wants to believe that we can get the lucky bounce we need to pull it off, the pragmatist in me thinks it's not going to happen and advises that we start considering other alternatives.
Regardless of what happens to Nebraska, there are three basic routes that Michigan will take before it reaches the end of the season. Each outcome will obviously provoke a different reaction.
Like removing a band-aid, we'll get the most depressing one out of the way first:
In this scenario Michigan completely implodes against Iowa and drops the season ending game to Ohio State. Iowa has had Michigan's number for three straight years, and like their games against Michigan State and Minnesota, they just put together a better effort and a complete package that results in a win. Michigan heads to Columbus and loses to Ohio State, Urban Meyer finishes his probable yet improbable 12-0 debut, and Off Tackle Empire celebrates.
Any chance this actually happens? Denard Robinson's injury against Nebraska all but made the Michigan fanbase break out the hard stuff, and before the season, it was looking like a good matchup between him and Braxton Miller. Ohio State's defense has not been cumulatively good this year, and the offense has bailed them out of most of their problems with Miller at the helm.
Even though Devin Gardner has performed well in the last two games, he still hasn't withstood the test of fire, to use a Biblical phrase. His play has been exceptional given the situation, but he's done it against two teams that four weeks ago were placed in the "take care of business" category.
The next scenario is considerably more positive:
Holy crap, everything goes right. Michigan wins out, knocks off 11-0 Meyer in good, old Bo-Woody fashion, and despite the disappointments that have plagued the team this year, 2012 is generally branded a success.
With the flurry of elite recruits coming in, the slightly sub-par season is seen as a difficult but acceptable dip for a program about to seriously take off.
This really only happens if Michigan not only convincingly takes care of business against Iowa, but also if they play their best game of the entire year against Ohio State. It won't be easy: Meyer is a good strategist, Miller is a hell of an athlete (and Michigan fans know from 2011), and the venue is played in enemy territory.
Even if Michigan doesn't get to the Big Ten championship, a victory over the Buckeyes is enough to propel the program to perform well into their bowl game and keep the optimism about Hoke going for another off-season.
Finally, the most likely scenario:
We've been feeling this ever since the loss to Nebraska. The injury to Denard has been so damaging that in at least some part of our minds we've been wondering if we lost this thing altogether. It sucks that Michigan's offense has been so dependent on Denard and thus so affected by his injury, but I believe that Michigan will ultimately be better because of it. With Denard out and Gardner in, the other Michigan players have been forced to step up and play as a team.
It sucks more that Urban Meyer will probably get to 12-0. However, let's be clear: the Buckeyes are not as good as their record suggests. They nearly blew their undefeated streak when Purdue came within a hair of beating them (at home!) in double overtime. A Purdue team, by the way, that Michigan demolished.
A second conference loss means that Michigan is all but out of the Big Ten championship race, and that means the focus instead turns to the bowl game we'd play in, which is likely to be either the Capital One Bowl or the Outback Bowl.
Last year, because Michigan was high enough in the BCS standings to be picked for a BCS bowl, that meant that Nebraska (a 9-3 team) played in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Michigan State, then the Big Ten runner-up, dropped to the Outback Bowl, where they played a nail-biter against Georgia. Both bowls feature SEC teams.
The teams leading the SEC East are Georgia (7-1), Florida (7-1), and South Carolina (6-2). Georgia has been the mainstay of the division, knocking off Florida and LSU, and their only loss coming to South Carolina.
Alabama and Texas A&M lead the SEC West, and ideally the scenario would be for Alabama to win the SEC championship and play Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, assuming Notre Dame falls to 11-1 after playing USC. (Please, please let Notre Dame play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Come on, Powers That Be, you know you want to.)
Because of the timing of Alabama's recent, glorious loss to Texas A&M, the chances of them breaking into the BCS national championship game are remarkably slim if Oregon and Kansas State stay undefeated. That leaves a choice for Michigan's opponents to be between Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas A&M.
LSU, at 6-2, is also possible, but the Capital One Bowl calls for the No. 2 team in the SEC, whereas the Outback Bowl calls for the No. 3 team, and unless LSU wins out, all the teams in the SEC East have better records. That still doesn't squander the possibility that LSU or one of the SEC East leaders plays in a BCS bowl as an at-large team.
Of all the SEC teams (besides Alabama, which I would be surprised to face in a rematch), A&M and LSU scare me the most. Georgia and South Carolina have not and will not face Alabama this year, but South Carolina's two losses did come at the hands of LSU and Florida. The Gators beat LSU and their loss came against Georgia.
So if the Outback Bowl or the Capital One Bowl comes down to South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida, it's still panic-worthy but not Alabama panic-worthy.
Personally, my vote would be for South Carolina. They're a team that is in a lot of ways like us. Their star player has battled injury, they've shown a lot of promise, they're fighting for relevancy, and they've given their fans heart attacks by escaping games that should have been easier (Tennessee and Arkansas).
They also have a very devoted fan base that travels well and stuck with them even when they went 0-11 a while ago. It would be a good game.
Well, that's my two cents. What say you?